Saturday, November 17, 2012

Politics for creative types

Matthew Inman's comic on the creative process (which you've almost certainly seen already because you already read The Oatmeal; and if you haven't because you don't, now's the time to start) got me thinking about creativity and political leanings. I don't know anything about Inman's own politics, really, aside from the fact that he has a firm grasp of the notion of copyright, but I wouldn't be surprised if he leans to the left at least a little bit. People who make a living-- and people who wish they could make a living-- producing creative content tend to, and I've been contemplating why that is.

I think it has something to do with just world bias and how utterly it conflicts with the creative market.

See, probably every creative person you know has at some point (probably many points) in their life had the thought about someone "That person produces complete crap, and yet people shower affections, praise, and cash upon him/her." A creative person is intimately aware of how much of his/her success (or lack thereof) is based on a combination of the sheer caprice of public taste and plain' old dumb luck. This does not mean that creative types who are successful didn't earn their success, but rather that their success cannot be summed up simply as the reward of effort, and most of them know this. A creative person doesn't want his/her success to be simply the reward for effort, because that totally discards the notion of talent. And how much of it they have. And how that makes them special.

Note: there's nothing wrong with wanting to be special.

But what this means is that even the most full of him/herself, egotistical artist/writer/performer on the planet-- and there's no shortage of those-- is at least tacitly aware that things could be very different, that he/she might not have been "discovered," that his/her genius might have gone permanently unrecognized, and he/she could have become the proverbial starving artist. Or, in many cases, is one now. So the artist sees the importance of a social safety net, and doesn't look down on those who find themselves needing to land in it. But, you could say, artists don't have to starve-- they could easily do something else! Many of them do do something else! Yes, but one of the things about creativity is that you have to do that, to be that. Creators gotta create. They find themselves doing it regardless of whether anyone's paying attention, let alone paying them for it, and that takes time, energy, and other resources. Money that a non-creative person might spend on tickets to the Super Bowl (no, I'm not saying only non-creative people like football. But...well, hmm. Maybe I am) gets spent instead on paint, instruments, clay, fabric, microphones, and Photoshop. Etc.

But what does this have to do with being liberal, exactly? Well, conservatism is rife with just world bias-- the assumption is "I built this," or, when prompted to be religious, "I built this, with the opportunities God gave me." A conservative's success is his/her own, and a conservative's lack of success is...temporary. Not necessary. A test of faith. Things along those lines. To a conservative, the market is not a matter of public taste-- it's a matter of public recognition of quality, and quality is produced through effort. Effort and know-how. The market approaches objectivity in that regard. Criticize a movie that won out big at the box office, and a conservative will be the first person to remind you of that fact. The existence of Jersey Shore is simply the public not knowing what quality is.

This is why, when a conservative talks about "personal responsibility," he/she is talking about taking responsibility for the fact that you're successful or not, and not bugging anyone else about it. You're poor? Get a job. Got a job? Get another/better job. Do some work; work people will pay you for. Don't take from others, you lazy grasshopper, when all of us ants are putting in an eight-hour day, every day, and providing goods and services the market wants. It might not be "fair" that the market doesn't want whatever it is you are producing, but life ain't fair. Suck it up.

The starving artist does have to suck it up. But they are very aware of the "have" in that sentence. This is why the expression "selling out" exists. This is why creative types can be suspicious of the notion of "property rights"-- because it suggests that property is as important as people. Other rights we're familiar with are about individuals and what individuals are allowed to say, think, and rights are about what they're allowed to have, and that's suspicious. What we're allowed to have has, after all, at some points included other people. The notion of a corporation has made what we have into a person, and liberals are not any happier about the thought of property becoming people than they are about people becoming property.

Property rights are important to me, but I had to learn why they should be. It wasn't nearly as intuitive as the right to be creative, to produce things because you can and want to for your own pleasure and that of others.  I had to come to see property as the necessary condition for that that production, an extension of the individual which the denial of directly inhibits his or her pursuit of happiness. I think that's how you sell the importance of the Fourth Amendment to liberals, to make them regard it as anywhere near as important as the First-- you make it harder for a person to live, to create, to pursue happiness, when you take his or her things away. Creation is done via speaking and doing, and the speaking reduces to doing, and you can't do without stuff. Artists are well-accustomed to doing with less than they'd prefer to have, making it work (because the alternative is to not create at all), but it's possible to see the practical effect of taking away what a person needs, and recognize that the damage that does is similar to that done by attacking or silencing them. And creators are good at nuance, so they can recognize that this doesn't mean taking someone's stuff is identical to attacking or silencing them, though it can amount to the same thing or even be worse. Property rights aren't just so that CEOs can live in enormous houses-- they're also so that your life savings doesn't get confiscated by the police without so much as charging you with a crime, so that your privacy is not invaded for the sake of preventing you from ingesting materials which conservatives find morally objectionable, so that your autonomy is not taken from you because you were caught doing so.

The emphasis on autonomy is, incidentally, why I consider myself a libertarian, albeit a very left-leaning one. I support a safety net, but I also support the ability to do pretty much any kind of gymnastics you care to above it. My sense of personal responsibility doesn't extend to being fully responsible for screwing up your life, and certainly not to others-- or life itself-- screwing it up for you. I strongly believe people should be allowed to make their own mistakes, but there's a limit to how much suffering should be permissible as a consequence, and not everyone who finds themselves suffering made any mistake at all-- certainly not one that the person looking down on them from the balcony of a mansion or the edge of a pulpit couldn't have made just as easily him or herself, if things had gone slightly differently. Trading Places is a damn good movie.

And it was made by creative people. Probably liberals.

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